The U.S. commando raids in Libya and Somalia suggest the future shape of U.S. counterterrorism efforts — brief, targeted raids against highly sought extremist figures — and highlight the rise of Africa as a terrorist haven.
The strikes also raise questions about where to interrogate and try captured terrorist suspects such as Abu Anas al-Libi, accused by the U.S. of involvement in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday that al-Libi was in U.S. custody; officials would not say where.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, said al-Libi has “vast intelligence value.”
McKeon, R-Calif., said President Barack Obama should “fully exploit this potential” before moving on to his prosecution. The White House seemed to agree, saying Saturday’s raid in Tripoli was specifically designed to apprehend, not kill, the suspect.
“The president has made clear our preference for capturing terrorist targets when possible, and that’s exactly what we’ve done in order to elicit as much valuable intelligence as we can and bring a dangerous terrorist to justice,” said the White House National Security Council’s spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden.
The outcome of a second U.S. commando raid Saturday, targeting a leader of the al-Qaida affiliated terror group, al-Shabab, was less clear.
A Navy SEAL team swam ashore in Somalia early in the morning and engaged in a fierce firefight. A U.S. official said afterward the Americans disengaged after inflicting some al-Shabab casualties, but it was unclear who was hit. The official was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The raid in Somalia reflected the importance the Obama administration attaches to combating al-Shabab, whose leaders are believed to be collaborating more with other al-Qaida affiliated Islamic insurgent groups across Africa.
In a speech in May outlining his strategy for the use of drones, Obama counted Somalia as among the places where the U.S. and its allies face “lethal yet less capable al-Qaida affiliates.”
The commando assaults unfolded against the backdrop of political paralysis in Washington, where the Congress and the White House are locked in battle over budgets but have agreed to keep the military operating and paid on time.
Libya said Sunday it has asked the United States for “clarifications” regarding the capture of al-Libi by U.S. Delta Force commandos.
The Tripoli government said that al-Libi, as a Libyan national, should be tried in his own country. He is on the FBI’s most-wanted list of terrorists with a $5 million bounty on his head. He was indicted by the U.S. in November 1998.
In a statement, Libya also said it hoped the incident would not affect its strategic relationship with the U.S., which is evolving in the aftermath of the 2011 ouster of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Ties were complicated by the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, in eastern Libya.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a vocal advocate of placing captured high-value terrorist suspects in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, said Sunday that al-Libi should be treated as an enemy combatant, detained in military custody “and interrogated to gather information that will prevent future attacks and help locate other al-Qaida terrorists.”
Al-Libi was indicted by a federal court in New York for his alleged role in the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, on Aug. 7, 1998, that killed more than 220 people.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Indonesia for an economic summit, said the U.S. hopes the raids make clear that America “will never stop in the effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.” He added: “Members of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.”
It was not immediately clear whether al-Libi had been involved with al-Qaida since or had been connected to militant activities in Libya, where al-Qaida has a growing presence since Gadhafi was unseated.
The family of al-Libi denied he was ever a member of al-Qaida and said he was not involved in militant activity since his return.
In a 157-page indictment filed in the Southern District of New York in November 1998, the U.S. government accused al-Libi and others of conspiring to kill American civilians and military members at the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Specifically, prosecutors said al-Libi helped bin Laden and al-Qaida plan the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi by scouting and photographing the site in 1993. The indictment also alleges al-Libi discussed other attacks on the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as British, French and Israeli targets in Kenya.
The court filing does not charge al-Libi in the bombing and deaths of those at the embassies, but rather says he conspired to achieve that result.